America the brand

Today, we are expected to have a personal brand, a digital brand, a business brand, a family brand — all for the purpose of aligning our various brands with other brands so that we can all make a bigger footprint and even more money.

God bless America.  The land of the brand and the home of the brazen promoter.

Back before brand and branding became part of everyone's vocabulary, a brand was the thoughtfully-chosen set of verbal and visual symbols that described a product in a way that invited repeated transactions.  Before that, a brand was an identifying mark soldered onto your hide, if you were a steer.  Maybe not a bad idea for those who throw the word around as if they know what they saying.  Just kidding.  Before that, Tennyson referred to Excalibur as King Arthur's brand, in Morte d'Arthur.

That famous poem gives us the dying Arthur asking a knight, Bedivere, to return Excalibur to the lake in which it had been created.  The knight's first impulse was to preserve the sword for posterity — as evidence of Arthur's existence and accomplishments.  Bedivere asked himself,

And if indeed I cast the brand away,
Surely a precious thing, one worthy note,
Should thus be lost forever from the earth,
Which might have pleased the eyes of many men.

It took Bedivere three trips to the lake's shore to summon the will to hurl the sword toward the lake's center.  If there is such a thing as a brand champion [cliche], Bedivere is it.  Farsighted enough to consider Excalibur as a symbol worthy of protection.  Loyal enough to honor his vow to Arthur and to respect the king's wishes.

For Americans today, the only loyalty expected of us is to avoid committing treason.  Unlike Bedivere, our king arthurs are faraway figures who thought and gave on our behalf, leaving us the brand to protect and to honor.

Many of us think of Brand America as our flag, our military might, our borders, our businesses, our landmarks, our prosperity.  We think of our country in terms of its symbols.

I have the great good fortune of knowing people who chose to become American citizens last year.  One of them recently shared a passage from the congratulatory letter he received from the White House; the new citizen shared this as encouragement to others in our circle to consider citizenship.  In reading it, I found what I think is our Excalibur.

Americans are united across the generations by grand and enduring
ideals. The grandest of these ideals is an unfolding promise that
everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, and that no
insignificant person was ever born. Our country has never been united
by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by principles that move us
beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what
it means to be citizens. Every citizen must uphold these principles.
And every new citizen, by embracing these ideals, makes our country
more, not less, American.

We've just begun the season in which we celebrate uniquely American milestones and beliefs.  At the end of this season, we face the task of choosing the successor to a column of leaders, some good, some bad, put at the American helm by our forebears and by us.  Our so-far overcast age has always had one thing going for it:  the fact that any one individual, including the president, is only a part of the American story, not the whole story.  The presidency itself is an esteemed emblem of the American brand as well as a pivotal aspect of self government.  But the person who steps into the role is never the whole story.  We are.